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New York and United States Constitutions…cont

Finally, the court stated that “the widespread application of rule in our already overburdened criminal justice system would only serve to ‘overwhelm the courts and prosecutors by consuming large amounts of time for selecting juries and would cause unmanageable delays’ ”
Defendant argues that, when a defendant is charged with multiple petty offenses in a joined prosecution, carrying a potential aggregate sentence greater than six months’ imprisonment, both the New York and United States Constitutions mandate that the defendant be afforded a jury trial. Defendant urges this Court to adopt the “aggregate-sentence approach” for determining the constitutional right to a jury trial.

The Court rejected defendant’s arguments and agree with the Appellate Term that the determination as to whether a defendant is constitutionally entitled to a jury trial hinges on the seriousness of the offense, not the potential aggregate sentence for a series of petty offenses that may be consolidated for trial.

It is well settled that offenses carrying a maximum statutory term of imprisonment of greater than six months are “serious” offenses for which the New York and United States Constitutions unquestionably afford defendants the right to a jury trial. Equally settled is the proposition that offenses carrying sentences of less than six months are “petty” offenses, to which no right to a jury trial attaches. Courts are required to examine each offense in a prosecution individually and separately, to determine whether the Legislature has ascribed a serious level classification fixed by the measurement of whether any of the individual offenses carry a potential maximum sentence of greater than six months. When a court determines that none does, the defendant is not constitutionally entitled to a jury trial.

In a case, defendants were charged with multiple counts of prostitution. They challenged the constitutionality of CPL 340.40(2), which mandates that crimes punishable by imprisonment of six months or less be heard before a Judge. The Court concluded that the statute did not violate the Sixth Amendment. The Court reasoned that the misdemeanors, each punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of three months, were “petty” offenses within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment to which there is no right to a jury trial. The Court stated that “[a]lthough earlier cases may have considered various factors of a crime [citations omitted], recent Supreme Court decisions have emphasized the length of sentence to the exclusion of virtually everything else”. Our Court further stressed that “[t]he penalty is deemed of major relevance, a gauge of the locality’s social and ethical judgments on the heinousness of the offense”.

At one point in time, this Court had even held the view that sex crimes for which the maximum punishment was not greater than one year of imprisonment were not afforded the constitutional guarantee of a jury trial. “the overburdening caseload existing in the criminal courts of the highly populated City of New York [gave] rise to extraordinary and unique circumstances” which provided a reasonable basis for refusing to permit “the more time-consuming trial by jury of misdemeanors”

The United States Supreme Court rejected that temporal extension of the operating principle and has consistently held that defendants charged with petty offenses, defined as those carrying maximum statutory prison terms of less than six months, are not entitled to a jury trial.

In a significant recent development and instruction to our jurisprudence, the Supreme Court answered the question now posed to us from the perspective of the United States Constitution. There, the defendant was charged with two counts of Federal mail obstruction, each carrying a maximum six-month prison term. The Supreme Court reiterated that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial is reserved for the prosecution of serious crimes–those carrying a maximum prison term of greater than six months. It held that the compulsory availability of that right is not implicated when a defendant faces a potential aggregate sentence in excess of six months by virtue of being charged with multiple petty offenses in a consolidated proceeding. The Supreme Court stated that “[t]he fact that the petitioner was charged with two counts of a petty offense does not revise the legislative judgment as to the gravity of that particular offense, nor does it transform the petty offense into a serious one, to which the jury-trial right would apply”. Domestic violence was not discussed.

The Court is satisfied that the inescapably interrelated history and development of this Court’s and the United States Supreme Court’s rulings on the right to a jury trial for prosecution of petty offenses dictates an affirmance of the criminal rulings of the courts below. No persuasive justification is presented for us to adopt defendant’s contention that prosecution of consolidated petty offenses, with a potential aggregate sentence in excess of six months, adds up to a constitutionally compelled right to a jury trial. Multiple petty crimes remain “petty” by legislative classification and their nature, and are not transformed by their sheer number alone into matters of a serious level and nature.

In sum, even in aggregate sentence circumstances for petty offenses, the unalterable fact remains that the defendant is not charged with any offense that qualifies as serious, thus invoking the guarantee of a jury trial. Since it is the discrete petty offense itself in these circumstances, and not the accumulation of them, which determines the constitutional entitlement to a jury trial, defendant-appellant’s arguments cannot prevail.

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